Brendan Hoban’s Western People article 18th August – The Church must breathe in a modern society  

The Church must breathe in a modern society                  Western People 18th Aug 2020

It was no surprise that the canonisation of John Henry Newman took place while Francis was pope. It would have been a considerable surprise if it had happened under Popes Benedict or John Paul.

While Newman’s conversion to Catholicism in the cut and thrust of inter-church rivalry in the un-ecumenical nineteenth century was regarded as particularly significant and his enchantment with Catholicism regarded as a triumph for the Catholic Church, he was long regarded with suspicion as being ‘not one of us’. Newman made no secret of his continuing regard for his Anglican heritage.

Another reason was Newman’s respect for what he called ‘the development of doctrine’. Or in other words, his conviction that Church teaching changes. This runs counter to the presumed traditional belief that the teaching of the Catholic Church never changes, that it is set in stone, that it hasn’t changed and that it can’t change. It has and it does as competent theologians will widely attest.

Indeed it might be said that for Francis – apart from Newman’s holiness – the development of doctrine may have been the compelling reason for his sainthood. Because slowly but surely during Francis’ short pontificate, it’s clear that an exercise in the development of doctrine (or a change in church teaching) is taking place.

Francis is careful not to say that. He never questions church teaching but he sets beside it other considerations that provide a context to it. For example, he never directly questions Church teaching on sexual morality but when invited to restate teaching on homosexuality his intriguing response was, ‘Who am I to judge?’ When the possibility was discussed of opening the reception of Communion to some who were in irregular marriage situations, he didn’t just repeat the official response but rather talked about lifting burdens from people’s shoulders and ministering sensitively to those in need.

Francis knows that pretending that church teaching never changes is no longer a credible or defensible stance in the modern world. In every discipline and in every institution, increased knowledge opens up a refinement of position and the Catholic Church is no different. A doctor plying his trade on the basis of medical knowledge gleaned from the first millennium would cut a strange figure today. A theologian ignoring the insights of modern biblical scholarship is the same. For church teaching to stand its ground in the modern world, change is not a rejection of doctrine but rather an acceptance of the ground-rules of a compelling and credible scholarship.

What Francis is doing is allowing church teaching to breathe again in a modern setting.

He does this by applying key biblical concepts to Catholic life. For example, he has resurrected for Catholics the biblical centrality of Mercy and brought it to bear on the struggles of life, not simply restating what are regarded as absolute truths but making space for those who, through human failure, find themselves unable to measure up to them. A creative tension emerges say, between the sanctity of marriage and those who find it beyond them for whatever reason. It’s a tension that resonates with much of life in the twenty-first century.

Another key concept Francis has brought to centre-stage is the biblical focus on ‘care of the poor’. It sets in due relief the sometimes skewed priorities of the Catholic Church. Francis is bringing us back to basics.

The war in the Church today for the heart and soul of Catholicism is between those who oppose the reforms of Francis – those who want no change of any kind – and those who welcome the kind of change that helps to communicates the richness of our Catholic tradition to a modern world.

Francis isn’t advertising his reforms as a crusade. Or publicly defending what he’s doing. Like Joe Biden he finds that silence can be the most effective weapon in his own defence, especially when his opponents in their excesses are consistently representing the need for reform. They are making the case for him.

The American Church which opposes the care of the poor by presenting Catholicism as a blessing on the rich has lost its way, as evidenced by the embarrassing spectacle of Cardinal Dolan of New York praising the leadership of President Trump.

The Vatican bureaucrats, by common consent out of control and out to lunch for many years, carry the can for ‘no change’ in theological matters. And both the American Church and the Vatican civil servants have consistently and disloyally opposed Francis’ reforms which are clearly supported by the majority of Catholics today.

That war for the heart and soul of Catholicism is being fought at local level too. The recognition and attention heretofore lavished on those who oppose reform have reaped a bitter whirlwind and given undue deference to ultra-traditional Catholics who campaign for the status quo. Worse still their analysis, presented in the form of loyalty and support, has been widely adopted as holy writ by a harassed church leadership.

The unexamined truism is that the problems of the Catholic Church today are the result of ‘a loss of faith’. This mantra, forever repeated by conservative commentators and by more and more bishops, conveniently excuses those in leadership positions from supporting Francis in his efforts to reform the Church. In effect, it’s the equivalent of the infamous ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse, as it suitably closes down discussion and deflects responsibility – even though it is an arrogant, disrespectful, judgmental dismissal of a more complicated reality.

A recent letter to the Irish Times from Joe Mulvaney makes this telling point: ‘The majority of Irish people do not reject the central Christian teachings that reality is gracious, God is love, life is multi-dimensional and that our response should be joy, love and care for all . . . however, it is not possible to evangelise today in the language of sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia or exclusion’.

Truths the Church needs to learn if our Catholic heritage is to stand its ground in the modern world.






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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    It would not have been surprising if Benedict XVI canonized Newman; he beatified him in Birmingham:

    Leo XIII made him Cardinal.

    Pius X vouched for his orthodoxy in a letter to the bishop of Limerick.

    Pius XII called him “the pride of Britain and the universal Church”

    Paul VI was devoted to him.

    John Paul II invoked him admiringly several times:
    “The philosophical and theological thought and the spirituality of Cardinal Newman, so deeply rooted in and enriched by Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers, still retain their particular originality and value. As a leading figure of the Oxford Movement, and later as a promoter of authentic renewal in the Catholic Church, Newman is seen to have a special ecumenical vocation not only for his own country but also for the whole Church. By insisting that the Church must be prepared for converts, as well as converts prepared for the Church, he already in a certain measure anticipated in his broad theological vision one of the main aims and orientations of the Second Vatican Council and the Church in the post-conciliar period. In the spirit of my predecessors in the See of Peter, I express the hope that under this very important aspect, and under other aspects no less important, the figure and teaching of the great Cardinal will continue to inspire an ever more effective fulfilment of the Church’s mission in the modem world, and that it will help to renew the spiritual life of her members and hasten the restoration of unity among all Christians.”

    Here’s a florilegium of papal praises of Newman:

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Joe, Brendan’s second sentence came as a ‘considerable surprise’ to me too! Thanks for your detailed response.

  3. Daithi O'Muirneachain says:

    The attitude of some previous Popes to John Henry Newman reminds me of “The Curate’s Egg”. Some only selected those Newman articles that conformed with their own positions in theology and faith matters. How many of them would have accepted Newman’s principle of the primacy of consience or his emphasis on the need for change?. “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”.
    If the Church is to be effective in facing the future, it must change in many ways, be open to new situations and to consult the laity. It must be prepared to ‘Think Outside The Box”.

  4. Liamy MacNally says:

    Brendan Hoban has forwarded the following:

    While I wouldn’t rush to justify my throw-away comment on Pope Benedict, and Joe O’Leary’s list of evidence to the contrary is impressive there are numerous other factors at play.
    One is that the sainted Newman is the gift that keeps giving – to everyone.
    Ian Ker’s mammoth Newman biography attests to the fact that in Newman’s extraordinarily varied life and career, there’s evidence to support almost any theological perspective across the broad Catholic spectrum. People take from Newman what they will. Newman has become the hero of groups diametrically opposed to each other.
    Another factor, historically, was the Protestant Crusade – the effort to convert Catholics to Protestantism. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in what historian Donal A. Kerr deliciously described as ‘an unecumenical age’, Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was regarded as a victory for the Catholic side and a blow to Protestantism. Its theological significance was correspondingly unimportant in the cut and thrust of, for example, Famine times. One-upmanship was all.
    I’m sure Benedict had huge respect for Newman’s theological credentials (though I don’t accept that beatifying him was indicative of that respect, as such occasions can be mere accidents of history) but I hesitate to conclude that Benedict continued to respect Newman’s lifelong connection with and commitment to his Anglican heritage.
    Benedict’s enthusiasm for that strange unecumenical initiative, the ordinarate, should at least give pause for thought.

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